A note on the ‘platform debate’ in Left Unity and on the issue of ‘left reformism’

A debate has opened up among Left Unity (LU) supporters in relation to the political and strategic orientation and organisational form of the ‘Left Party’ (?) those involved in the LU project aim to launch this November. Three competing ‘platforms’ have emerged, each proposing a distinct set of founding principles for the new party. The matter will be settled in a vote at LU’s November conference – which all of those who sign up to be ‘founding members’ of the new party can attend. As one of the signatories of the Left Party Platform (LPP),* I thought I would explain why I support this platform and why I’m not convinced by the others. I thought I’d also make a few remarks in relation to the ‘left reformism’ controversy that has arisen in relation to Left Unity – and, specifically, the SWP’s concerns about (what it sees as) the general orientation of Left Unity.

The first thing to say, here, is that the platform debate is very welcome. To some, no doubt, the emergence of competing factions in Left Unity looks worryingly – perhaps tediously – familiar. We’re all painfully aware, after all, of the left’s tendency to rip itself apart and self-destruct in fractious squabbling given half a chance. But while I wouldn’t say that there is absolutely no danger of this debate spiralling into yet another left group implosion (this time before the organisation has even officially established itself), the debate so far (!) has been relatively restrained and has been conducted (at least it looks this way to me) with patience and evident good will on all sides. Of course, a crunch point in this process will come when one of the platforms wins out over the others in the November vote. Conceivably, people in the unsuccessful platforms may walk out of the organisation. I hope this doesn’t happen – and one of the key responsibilities of those clustered around the victorious platform (whichever it is) will be to be as conciliatory as possible toward the defeated platforms and to stress that there is still a place for them. I have to say, here, however (and I’ll go on to spell this out a bit more below) that it’s much easier to see how those with the SP perspective could continue to organise as a distinct current within a broader party organised along the lines of the LPP vision than it would be if it were the other way round – precisely because the SP vision is not of a broad party capable of encompassing diverse currents.

Nevertheless, despite these real dangers, my overall feeling is that the current debate is a healthy one and, moreover, a necessary one. We do need to set down some fundamental principles and general programmatic and strategic parameters for the group before we start to build it as a party  – we need to know, roughly at least, what kind of thing it is we are trying to build and what kind of things we are trying to do. Further, the current debate in LU (together with the policy commissions process in which any supporter can get involved in discussing future policy for the party) demonstrates in practice our commitment, right from the beginning, to building a thoroughly democratic organisation. This certainly isn’t an organisation in which everything has been stitched up from the start and it won’t be one in which decisions passed down from an elite at the top are rubber stamped by the membership.

As healthy, welcome and necessary as this process of debate may be, however, I’m not, of course, indifferent as to which platform wins out. Indeed, I think it’s absolutely essential for the success of the Left Unity project that the principles and statements set out in the LPP documents are adopted as the basis for the new party. Let me explain why.

Our key task, it seems to me, is to provide a political organisation which could draw together and articulate a wide range of forces on the left. Labour’s almost total abandonment of what we might call traditional social democracy has opened up a political space in which a broad left party could flourish. We need to build an organisation which could appeal to the many many thousands of people who have been left feeling disenfranchised by Labour’s march to the right and which could bring this very large constituency together with various others, including forces further to the left. We need, in other words, a British version of the Front de Gauche, Die Linke and Syriza – all of them multi-tendency organisations in which a broad range of left forces cohere and which, crucially, are able to offer an attractive political home for refugees from established (ex-) social democratic parties. These are the sorts of parties making the running on the left at the moment. Unlike the other two platforms, the LPP is squarely in this sort of mould. It’s a platform which says quite clearly that we want Left Unity to be broad and inclusive and we want it to be these things because, above all, we want it to be big and thus a serious political force!

None of this is to say that I (or, as far as I know, any of the other LPP signatories) intend to build a straightforwardly social democratic party or some sort of Labour Party Mk 2 as is sometimes suggested or implied by our opponents. I certainly don’t. My view is that  the ‘space’ for substantial social democratic reforms within capitalism is much more constrained than it was a few decades ago (and of course that space has only narrowed further in current conditions of serious global crisis). The rightward drift of social democratic parties internationally (in fact, the decomposition and hollowing out of social democracy) should be interpreted with this context in mind – it’s not credible to suppose that this can be explained simply in terms of ideological defeat on the part of the left-wing of social democratic reformism. It’s structural. The point is, however, that not everyone who identifies with the left broadly and who is looking for a serious alternative to Labour is, consciously at least, anti-capitalist. The vast majority of people on the left are generally social democratic and reformist. This sort of political position (in my view) is often held in a rather inchoate, general, instinctive way – the expression of a sort of vague social democratic ‘common sense’ on things like welfare and social equality. We have to attract the large numbers of people like this and provide them with a political home, uniting them with forces further to the left. This means that we need a broad and relatively non-prescriptive set of principles and a general orientation which is equally acceptable as something to sign up to for Old Labour social democrats as it is for revolutionary socialists.

In calling for this sort of party, socialists in the LPP certainly aren’t diluting their own politics – or in the SP’s bizarre argument ‘hiding’ their views and pretending to be social democrats – we’re simply saying that in order to build something serious and worthwhile, rather than yet another pious but small and ineffective sect of the righteous, we have to put forward a broad platform in which several different political currents can co-exist, work together and combine their forces. Socialists in the LPP don’t have to disguise or keep quiet about their socialism. Why should we? It’s just that we feel that it’s perfectly possible to work together in the same organisation with people holding different views rather than demanding that all prospective members sign up to a highly prescriptive list of ‘correct positions’ which will effectively exclude huge numbers of people we could otherwise draw into an organisation providing a leftwing opposition and alternative to austerity.

Working in the same organisation as those with broadly social democratic reformist views, furthermore, provides socialists with the best opportunity to get our ideas across and to win people to our politics. Many of those in the LPP, indeed (far from diluting or ‘hiding’ their views) aim to organise a far left pole of attraction within the broader party with this sort of approach in mind. We believe that people are best won to socialist politics, not by confronting them with a schematic list of revealed truths which they have to sign up for before we’ll work with them, but by working and campaigning with them in political activity in an organic, pedagogical process built on trust and mutual respect.  It’s important to point out, also, that socialists have to remember that they have just as much to learn in this process too – we have to avoid the all too common arrogance among the far left which tends to assume that we socialists are the bearers of enlightened, timeless and final truths and that those who don’t share our views are simply benighted naifs groping around in political darkness.

I’m sure I’m not alone among LPP signatories in that I probably agree with some 80 – 90% of what the SP statements say. It’s just – as indicated above – that I think that the SP approach will narrow the potential reach of Left Unity pretty drastically. It’s almost as if the SP has been designed deliberately to exclude large numbers of people and to restrict the new party to a small group of people who agree with each other on everything. There are plenty of those sorts of parties already in existence. If people wanted to join an explicitly and unambiguously Marxist party they would already have joined one of the existing 57 varieties. It would be a great shame (and in fact thoroughly irresponsible given the political opportunities that have opened up) to produce yet another small socialist sect that no one wants to join. We have to ask ourselves if we’re serious about building a powerful anti-austerity movement of the left or if we’re just posturing. If we’re interested in the former we need to take a leaf out of the European Left’s book and build a broad party of the Front de Gauche/ Syriza type.

I have to say that when I look at the documents and articles emanating from the SP (whatever the undoubted merits of the individuals involved) a lot of it does strike me as self-regarding political posturing. The emphasis in SP arguments is often on ‘being true’ to one’s own beliefs, saying what one ‘really believes’, openly declaring one’s socialist politics, being unwilling to ‘dilute’ one’s socialist or communist principles for grubby reasons of political manoeuvring, opportunism and so on.  Now, as I’ve already pointed out, no one in LPP is asking anyone to hide or dilute their views – we’re just suggesting that it should be possible to work alongside people who don’t agree with you on absolutely everything and that this would be a good idea if we want to build something serious. But the main thing that grabs me about the SP’s arguments in this respect is that it’s all remarkably lifestylist – it’s about presenting and attending to a particular image of yourself and feeling good about it. It’s about staring at your reflection in the mirror and congratulating yourself on your ‘correct positions’. It’s purism, not politics.

In one of the articles in support of the SP a contributor argues (and I certainly don’t mean to pick on the specific individual who I’m sure is a fantastic comrade – it’s just that this argument seems to me to epitomise the SP) that ‘the worst that can happen’ if a narrow platform wins out is that people ‘refuse to stand with us this time’. This, for me, is incredible logic. What is the point of organising a new party of the left if people refuse to join it? I’m interested in building a successful counterpart to the European Left parties overseas, not in pious failure – ‘oh well, no one joined, but at least we had the correct positions’.

In my view the SP would be much better off as an organised leftwing current (one among several others by the way) within a broader party organised along LPP lines. In fact (as Tom Walker has rightly suggested) it seems likely that some of those expressing support for the SP mistakenly assume that the platform debate is all about the setting up of permanent currents/factions within LU – but it’s not, it’s about setting the parameters for the new party as whole. The debate is about whether we have a broad party capable of encompassing several different currents and poles of attraction within it, or whether we have a narrow party without scope for significant differences of opinion. It’s worth making it plain that if the LPP win the vote in November, the SP can continue to exist and organise for their own politics within the new Left Party. If the SP win, however, LPP supporters will not be able to continue to organise as a current within a narrow party. Not because we’ll be forced out or deliberately excluded but because you can’t have a broad left current within a narrow party from which everyone who is not a Marxist is effectively barred.

I have to say that it is not quite clear to me what, precisely, the Class Struggle Platform (CSP) is arguing. They say that the LPP is insufficiently concrete (it’s broad and general for the reasons I’ve explained above) while the SP is too rigid and dogmatic (we agree about that). They seem to be saying that, instead, the new party’s focus should be on putting forward concrete plans for political engagement and struggle on specific issues which they then go on to list. Some of these proposals seem eminently sensible (I’m not sure about the proposal for a mass strike to bring down the government – don’t get me wrong I’m all for a general strike to bring down the government, I just don’t think it’s an immediately implementable demand in the way CSP seem to assume – which just seems like the same old rather abstract far left sloganeering to me), but I’m just not convinced this is an appropriate foundational basis for a new party. I don’t think that necessarily preliminary matters of organisational form and political orientation are settled by saying ‘here’s a list of campaigns, let’s do them’. It doesn’t adequately address the question driving the dispute between the LPP and SP – i.e. should we organise the new party as a broad left political formation or not.

A Note on the SWP and ‘Left Reformism’

In recent weeks there has been a small flurry of articles (and the matter has also come up in talks and event presentations) on the issue of ‘left reformism’ emanating from the SWP. The flurry is, in part, in response to the rise and rise of Syriza – but it also typically addresses the Left Unity initiative. My view is that this is all part of a necessary debate and I welcome it (not least because the SWP have generously given me space to put forward my views in their publications). Nevertheless the SWP’s attitude toward Left Unity does sometimes strike me as unnecessarily suspicious (sometimes veering toward hostility) and I’d like to say something about this briefly. I don’t want to go into the details here about the wider, more theoretical, political debate over the question of state power, ‘Left governments’, ‘centrism’/(left) reform vs revolution and so on. I’m currently preparing a piece on these questions for publication in the near future and there’s no way I can begin to cover all of this in a short note on a website. What I want to address is the way that the SWP seems to be relating to Left Unity – which is one which seems to oscillate (often in the same speech/article) between the suggestion that they’d like to be involved and mild denunciation.

[It’s worth pointing out in passing here that I (and I’m sure others in LU feel similarly) find the label ‘left reformism’ slightly irritating. It’s not just that it’s often used as a more less pejorative and slightly condescending term to categorise people within a left typology of various kinds of socialists who haven’t yet grasped Leninist principles, it’s  that it’s a very blunt instrument. As suggested above, there are actually many different positions within Left Unity which I’m not sure are all adequately understood if grouped together within a catch-all term like ‘left reformism’.]

Simplifying slightly, the SWP postition on ‘left reformism’ (which is the label they apply to Syriza, Die Linke, Front de Gauche, the Left Bloc as well as Left Unity) is that it is, in general, to be welcomed by revolutionary socialists in the Leninist tradition but should be supported critically without any illusions in the capacity for such a strategy to ‘open the way for socialism’. Correspondingly, the SWP approach to specific ‘left reformist’ organisations is to seek to work with them where possible, but to remain critical of the strategy these parties espouse and, above all, to maintain organisational independence rather than seek to dissolve themselves into these formations.

This is all fine as far as I’m concerned. The mystifying thing, however, is that alongside the suggestions that the SWP would like to be involved in LU you also encounter comments about the ‘dangers of left reformism’. There’s nothing unreasonable about the SWP being critical of what it calls ‘left reformism’ – it’s just that these criticisms of Left Unity often seem remarkably and disproportionately vigorous. There’s an awkward duality to the muted polemicising on the one hand and the extended olive branches on the other. It’s also odd to hear, repeatedly, that the SWP refuses to compromise its political independence by dissolving itself into a broad left formation – it’s odd because, as far as I know, no one is asking the SWP to dissolve itself into anything.

I realise that there’s a lot of bad blood between the ISN and SWP and this may be where a lot of the hostility and suspicion comes from. But as far as I’m concerned there’s absolutely no reason why the SWP and LU shouldn’t cooperate in campaigns and struggles (pretty sure we already do). Furthermore, for me (I can’t speak for the organisation as a whole – and I imagine we’ll need to wait until the founding conference when we decide what sort of organisation we’ll be), there’s no reason why the SWP shouldn’t be more directly involved in the party that emerges from LU. Indeed, individual SWP members already are involved in certain LU branches. The only caveat here is that the party that emerges from LU will be an individual member-based party rather than one to which other parties and groups can affiliate as organisations. Our politics are likely to be substantially different from those of the SWP of course, and we (like them) will not want to jeopardise our organisational independence. Furthermore we will reserve the right to be critical of the SWP (just as they refuse to abandon their criticisms of ‘left reformism’) even if we work closely together as I suspect we will.

* God, I’m sorry about all the acronyms.

  1. A note on the ‘platform debate’ in Left Unity and on the issue of ‘left reformism’ | Research Material

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